Comment on Nathaniel's assessment of America's Puritan past in The Scarlet Letter.

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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We can usefully link this question to the themes of sin and how Puritanism regarded it. In particular, a Biblical story that is alluded to at various points in the narrative is that of Adam and Eve, and how they exchanged a state of innocence for sin, but by doing so, gained knowledge. If we think about it, the situation of Hester and Arthur parallels this story in a number of ways. Firstly, the act of adultery is a sin that results in Hester's expulsion from respectable society and the internal suffering of Arthur. However, we can also see that it results in their greater knowledge of the human condition and their growth as characters. Note how Hester's punishment of bearing the scarlet letter acts as "her passport into regions where other women dared not tread" as she is able to think and mull over society and her own identity. In the same way, Arthur's sin makes him ironically incredibly successful as a pastor, causing his heart to "vibrate in unison" with his parishioners.

Hester and Arthur therefore are shown to grow and develop as indiviuals through a daily awareness of their sinful state. The Puritan elders, by contrast, are shown as rejecting sin whilst hypocritically ignoring its presence in their own lives. By treating sin as something that must be a taboo topic and excluded from society, violently and forcefully if necessary, they are not able to develop and grow in the same way that both Arthur and Hester grow in their character and maturity. Hawthorne therefore seems to offer a rather dim assessment of Puritanism as being something that constrains and holds back personal development and growth.


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